because life doesn’t fit in a file folder

Gratitude To The Man Who Taught Me To Embrace Chaos

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It was my third week at Metairie Park Country Day School, and I could barely distinguish the administration building from the science building. I didn’t know where the nearest bathroom was, who to call about the broken desk in my classroom, or how to make the copier stop jamming.

For the first two weeks, I called him Jeff. By the time I got it straight, I realized that Mark Kelly was not the technology guy; neither was he the Athletic Director. He was the Middle School Principal, and he’d come to the English office to pay me a visit, to see how I was doing, if I needed anything. How nice, I thought, how friendly the folks are around these parts. Little did I know that he was out to get me. Little did I know that I’d come face to face with the meanest practical joker east of the Mississippi. I made the mistake of sounding secure.

Mark Kelly

“Everything is great,” I said, trying to sound confident.

“Have you been to the Lower School?” he asked.

“Been there.” I said, feigning a yawn.

“What about the library?”

“Pu-leeze,” I lied.

“So you know what you’re doing?” he said, raising his eyebrow. “You have it all together?”

I nodded my head, snapped my fingers two times for effect, and headed off to class.  Later, after school ended and I had erased the blackboard, reorganized the desks in a circle, and collected my mail, I returned to the English office. I saw it from all the way across the room; my desk had been cleared. Everything was gone.

When I realized the gravity of the situation, I gasped aloud: “My grade book!” It held all my students’ grades, all my attendance records.

I think I vomited a little in my mouth.

Sitting behind me, looking calm, was Mr. Kelly.  “You’ve really got it all together…” He smiled, arms crossed over his chest.

“Where is it?” I squeaked. “What have you done with it?!”

Suffice it to say that Mr. Kelly sent me on quite a scavenger hunt. During my journey, I located the Lower School atrium, the Upper School attendance office, the library – and I met fabulous folks all along the way. In the end, it turned out that Mr. Kelly had stashed all my goods in an empty file cabinet drawer right there in the English office, about two steps away from my desk. I pulled all my belongings out of the drawer, unharmed, and set about reorganizing. Mr. Kelly gurgled and chortled behind me.

Truth be told, I miss the way Mark Kelly batted me around the way some giant cat might play with a mouse or a bird. I miss hearing his booming laugh behind me at school plays; I miss his multi-colored Tabasco ties; I miss his wit, his charm, his teasing, and his teaching. Mark put a little bounce in my step. He taught me to stay on my toes.  He taught me never to brag about being done with something early. He taught me how order in the world is artificial and how easy it is to lose control. He made me explore, go out and meet people, go into unfamiliar territory and find answers. It’s so easy to get stuck in our own little comfort zones.

Mark worked as Head of School at Annunciation Orthodox School in Houston, Texas for many years. I like to think that this little Grasshopper has become like her master and that I instill in my students the same thrill for exploration and the same joy at being slightly off-center.

When is the last time someone made you feel a little off balance – in a good way?

Coming Clean About My Age

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My birthday is coming up, y’all.

Yup, this summer girl was born in November.

You know what that means.

My parents got busy around Valentine’s Day.

It means this year I turn 50.

Whaaat?

Well, kind of.

Lucy watches Little Ricky's birthday party fro...
Lucy watches Little Ricky’s birthday party from the window ledge. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lucille Ball once said:

“The secret to staying young is to live honestly, eat slowly and lie about your age.”

How much do I Love Lucy?

Here’s the 411.

When I first started teaching, I was 23, just a few years older than some of my 12th grade students!

When I introduced myself, I made a point of tacking on a few extra years. I said I was 25. Seven extra years seemed like the right amount of padding.

When I moved to New Orleans, I continued to add years. I felt I needed the cushion, so parents would nod and smile instead of raise disapproving eyebrows. And so my students would believe I was seasoned and complete my assignments without giving me grief.

I never lied to my employers. The Headmaster and English Department Chair at Metairie Park Country day School knew precisely how green old I was when I was hired.

A few years ago, I realized I’ve been in my 40’s for nearly fifteen years.

And that made me remember my grandmother who told people she was 29.

For decades.

After she stopped wearing wigs and wore her thinning hair in loose ponytails wrapped in twine, she was 29. After her eyes dulled and her skin wrinkled, she was 29. After her toenails yellowed and her remaining teeth fell out of her mouth, she was 29.

It was preposterous.

No-one bought it. It was silly and a little pitiful.

I vowed to go the other way.

So I padded.

This year, I could have told my students that I was 50.

Because if you tack on five extra years…well, I look pretty freaking good for 50, right?

Feeling groovy.

And yet.

I’ve kind of caught up with myself.

These days, I am grateful for this body that continues to get me where it needs to go – even if I sometimes have headaches and get dizzy and fall down. I am grateful for my eyes, which still appreciate all the beauty around me – even if the view is a little blurry. I just have to remember to find put on my glasses. I will never have pretty model’s hands, but I have four fingers that help me to tap out what I want to say. Fingers that help me punch buttons on the phone to speak to old friends and new. Fingers that are attached to hands that reach out to offer assistance, to squeeze shoulders. Hands that are attached to arms which can swallow people up in hugs. And even if my vocal cords are toasted, I realized I have these things called ears that work really well, too.

So the jig is up.

Lucy, we’re back to living honestly.

On Sunday, I’ll be 45.

Right where I’m supposed to be.

A wife.

A mother.

A daughter.

A contestant on Survivor.

Just kidding.

But a girl can hold onto her dreams, right?

Have you ever lied about your age? How are you doing with the growing older thing? 

tweet me @rasjacobson

The Gift of Off-Center

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It was my third week at Metairie Park Country Day School, and I could barely distinguish the administration building from the science building. I didn’t know where the nearest bathroom was, who to call about the broken desk in my classroom, or how to make the copier stop jamming.

For the first two weeks I called him Jeff. By the time I got it straight, I realized that Mark Kelly was not the technology guy; neither was he the Athletic Director. He was the Middle School Principal, and he’d come to the English office to pay me a visit, to see how I was doing, if I needed anything. How nice, I thought, how friendly the folks are around these parts. Little did I know that he was out to get me. Little did I know that I’d come face to face with the meanest practical joker east of the Mississippi. I made the mistake of sounding secure.

Mark Kelly

“Everything is great,” I said, trying to sound confident.

“Have you been to the Lower School?” he asked.

“Been there.” I said, feigning a yawn.

“What about the library?”

“Pu-leeze,” I lied.

“So you know what you’re doing?” he said, raising his eyebrow. “You have it all together?”

I nodded my head, snapped my fingers two times for effect, and headed off to class. Later, after school ended and I had erased the blackboard, reorganized the desks in a circle, and collected my mail, I returned to the English office. I saw it from all the way across the room; my desk had been cleared.

Everything was gone.

Realizing the gravity of the situation, I gasped aloud: “My grade book!” It held all my students’ grades, all my attendance records. I think I vomited a little in my mouth.

Sitting behind me, looking calm, was Mark Kelly. He smiled, arms crossed over his chest.

“Where is it? What have you done with it?!” I squeaked.

“It’s around,” he said coolly.

Suffice it to say that Mr. Kelly sent me on quite a scavenger hunt. During my journey, I located the Lower School atrium, the Upper School attendance office, the library – and I met fabulous folks all along the way. In the end, it turned out that Mr. Kelly had stashed all my goods in an empty file cabinet drawer right there in the English office, about two steps away from my desk. I pulled all my belongings out of the drawer, unharmed, and set about reorganizing.

Mr. Kelly gurgled and chortled behind me.

Truth be told, I miss the way Mark Kelly batted me around the way some giant cat might play with a mouse or a bird. I miss hearing his booming laugh behind me at school plays; I miss his multi-colored Tabasco ties; I miss his wit, his charm, his teasing, and his teaching. Mark put a little bounce in my step. He taught me to stay on my toes.

Mr. Kelly taught me never to brag about being done with something early. He taught me how order in the world is artificial and how easy it is to lose control. He made me explore, go out and meet people, go into unfamiliar territory, and find answers. It is so easy to get stuck in our own little comfort zones.

I like to think that this little Grasshopper has become like her master and that I instill in my students the same thrill for exploration and the same joy at being slightly off-center.

When is the last time someone made you feel a little off-balance – in a good way? What’s the best practical joke someone ever pulled on you? Or you pulled on someone else?

The Day I Got It All Wrong

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When I teach, I come to class prepared. In fact, I sometimes come to class with a Plan A, Plan B and an Emergency Back-Up Plan. I think this stems from the days when I didn’t exactly know what I was doing. Case in point: Many years ago, when I was just starting out, students were completing their last day of oral presentations. One girl was standing up before the class doing her thing and a small group of boys were being – well, let’s just say, a little bit disruptive. Nothing major. They just weren’t really interested in the symbolism that she had found so riveting in Ordinary People.

I tried to get the attention of one of the boys. No luck. I tried to make eye contact with another. Nothin’. Finally, I took my pen – a Precise V5 extra fine tip pen in hand and attempted to throw it so that it would hit the main offender: Let’s call him Hugo. It should be noted here – and you can’t make this stuff up – that Hugo happened to have one good eye, having lost the other eye years earlier, although I never found out the circumstances surrounding how it had happened. Anyway, I tried to aim for Hugo’s leg – to get his attention without disrupting the entire class. I figured he’d feel the pen tap his leg, look at me, I’d give him “the death eye” and he’d stop screwing around. It seemed foolproof.

I don’t know how it happened because I usually have pretty good aim, but anyone who was in the class that day would vouch for the fact that the pen did not hit Hugo on the leg. That pen had a mind of its own and fueled by green ink, it launched itself upwards right into Hugo’s face just below (or maybe above?) his good eye.

Hugo stood up before the entire class holding his face, “What the hell are you doing?” he shouted (and with good reason). “You could have blinded me!” And with that, Hugo announced that he was going to the nurse, the principal and, then, he was going to call his mother.

I had done precisely what I had set out not to do. I had disrupted the class completely. At the time, I was pretty sure that I was going to be fired. After apologizing to the student presenter for creating such a commotion, class ended, and I hustled up to the Upper School principal to whom I confessed all my terrible, unforgivable sins. She clucked her tongue at me, told me to call Hugo’s mother, and explain what had happened. Thank goodness, Hugo’s mother was wonderful, supportive and understanding; she even joked that sometimes she wanted to poke out Hugo’s good eye. Later, I also apologized to Hugo who apologized to me for being disruptive and disrespectful.

I have often thought about my experience with Hugo. As a new teacher, I was trying to figure things out. After throwing a pen at my wonderful student, I learned many things: First and foremost, I learned to never throw anything at anyone in class ever again. But I learned a lot of other things, too. Over time, I discovered more creative methods to communicate with students about their behavior without making the class come to a grinding halt. I learned a great deal about respect that day and how quick actions can lead to terrible consequences. I learned that sometimes teachers need to apologize to their students because sometimes teachers are the biggest twits of all. We learn from experience.

Oh, and I didn’t get fired.

What’s a not-so-great thing you did on the job that turned into a huge learning moment?

Guest Post by Abby Fendler: In Memory of Ronnie

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Today’s guest post is by Abby Fendler, a former student at Metairie Park Country Day School. Earlier this week, Ronnie Frazier, Buildings and Grounds Supervisor, unexpectedly passed away, shocking the entire MPCDS community. While Ronnie wasn’t officially a teacher, he sure did mentor a lot of people. That man touched lives. My condolences to Ronnie’s wife, Rubie – whom Ronnie adored.

Photos courtesy of Sarah Choquette

How many people can say that their school janitor was – without a doubt – one of their best friends, heroes, and idols of all time? Rest assured, thousands of students, graduates, faculty and parents of Metairie Park Country Day School in Louisiana, can.

Born in Ferriday, Louisiana in 1957, in a town of 5,000 people, Ronnie had an English teacher aunt who stressed the importance of reading. As a result, Ronnie grew up articulate, politically acute, and knowledgeable. The day after he graduated from high school, he joined the army and, after his stint, he came to New Orleans looking for work.

“There weren’t many jobs available,” he said, “so I took a part-time job working in a grocery store warehouse, but I wanted to get into management training.” Although there were many stumbling blocks to his being admitted into the program, he persevered and eventually became assistant manager. Only then did he discover that the job did not pay a livable wage. Through a friend, Ronnie heard about a position with benefits and the possibility for career advancement at a well-known private school in the city, Metairie Park Country Day. “I felt that I’d found what I was looking for. In the past, I had only held jobs for short stretches of time, but at MPCDS, I felt like I could be happy,” Ronnie said.

Ronnie’s official job title was “Building and Grounds Supervisor” of the Metairie Park Country Day School in Louisiana, but Ronnie was also the head of maintenance, a bus driver, a woodworker, and a do-anything-and-everything-man-for-anyone-and-everyone on campus guy; in actuality, he was every student’s greatest hero – a real life “Superman.”

Graduate Traci Berger said, “Not one student at Country Day thought of Ronnie as ‘just the janitor’; he was like every student’s unofficial psychiatrist, funny uncle, favorite teacher, and best friend all wrapped up in one enormous, smiling package.” To the people who knew Ronnie, he was not merely a maintenance man; he was a fixture of the community, the real heart and soul of Metairie Park Country Day School.

An imposing figure at six feet five inches tall, dark, muscular and two hundred twenty-five pounds, Ronnie was a commanding presence at the school. Mallory Bohn, a thirteen year veteran of Country Day, remembers her first encounter with Ronnie Frazier as a kindergartener and new student:

I remember carrying my new “Barbie and Ken” lunchbox and an empty “My Little Pony” book bag, and from what I remember there was no one around to help me, but just as that first tear rolled down my cheek, Ronnie appeared from out of nowhere with this gigantic, welcoming smile. He’s was always around, to high-five when you were up and to commiserate and help when you were down.

Every faculty member and student has a fond memory of Ronnie Frazier. In 2004, graduating class president, Ben Fendler read these words in his speech. “I learned many things at my school – Math, Science and English – but the real lessons of life were those that I learned from watching Ronnie Frazier. He works hard without whining or complaining; he never quits. He’s a confidant, but not a snitch. He shines at a job that many would consider beneath them, and makes it all worthwhile and even enviable. Ronnie says that to succeed in his job requires diplomacy, flexibility and level-headedness, and that the kids make this easy for him because of all of their energy and inherent goodness. Although I think all of you would agree with me that it is not the children but Ronnie’s own character that accounts for his success.”

Ronnie worked at Country Day for 20 years. He once said being a member of the Country Day community was “like a vacation” because he was able to make a good living and get to watch wonderful kids grow up. “I get to drive them around, watch them play their [sports] and get paid for it. And, at the end of the day, I get to go home and know that I may have helped a student… That makes me so thankful.” Ronnie said. “I may not have the highest paying job in the world, but nothing is as rewarding as knowing that a child looks up to me and that, in his or her eyes, what I have to say really does make a difference.”

Does anyone recall having a bond with a person who worked at a school? Not a teacher but someone else who made a difference in your life? I’d love to hear your story.

Tweet this Twit @rasjacobson

Guest Post by Sarah Giarraputo Fischer: How Zombieland Helps Folks Survive an Educational Job Search

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Job Search Inspired By Zombieland

Today’s guest blogger is one of my former students from my days at Metairie Park Country Day School. The daughter of two educators, Sarah Giarraputo Fischer is now all grown up and working her butt off really hard, trying to land a teaching position.

Sarah & her son Gibson

A wife and mother, Sarah offers hope to wanna-be teachers who find themselves praying for old teachers to retire, get fired or die so they might take over their classrooms. Okay, maybe kindhearted souls like Sarah aren’t hoping for old teachers (like me) to shrivel up and die, but she is definitely eager to get into her own classroom, and she has some great tips to offer. And, wouldn’t you know, like Clay Morgan (my last guest blogger), she found inspiration in  Zombieland.

So you want to be a teacher…

Well get ready for the roller coaster ride of your life. Oh, I am not talking about teaching; I’m talking about the job search! Cliché but true, my friends. If you are in the market for a teaching job, you need to have a thick skin, be creative and – when necessary – be a bit, well, ballsy.

After I graduated college, I spent a year in New York City (2001) trying to make it in the non-profit sector before setting out to look for a teaching position at an independent school. Without very much effort on my part, I was scooped up by a boarding school to teach English, run the dance program, serve as a dorm parent, and spend 24/7 on the campus. I was willing, able and ready to work for what seemed like a great deal – (after that year in New York City, a job that included room and board was basically impossible to turn down).

Now almost ten years after my first teaching job search, I am ready to go back into the classroom, but I am no longer a spring chicken. With a Master’s degree under my belt, four years of classroom teaching experience, and over four years non-profit management experience, I have a lot to offer. But I also expect decent pay and benefits plus time to spend with my family. I can no longer sell my soul to the school for nothing and, in many ways, that puts me at a disadvantage in this market.

Like most people, I hate the job search process. In fact, I feel the whole system is set up to make candidates feel like they are less than competent.

So how do I survive and why might you care what I have to say? Well, first of all – like you – I am in the thick of it. And second, I recruited, interviewed and placed AmeriCorps members for the past three years as teacher and tutors in Adult Education and ESL programs, so I have had the “privilege” of being on both sides of the job search.

In order to stay positive and engaged in my job search, I looked to the soon-to-be classic Zombieland for inspiration (trust me the similarities between scenes of the undead in Zombieland and one of the larger search firm’s job fairs are numerous). And so I give you my three top rules for surviving the educational job search:

Rule #1: ENDURANCE. Just like characters in the film needed solid cardio to out-run zombies and other undead creatures, a person needs endurance to survive the job search. In Zombieland, all the fat folks were the first ones to get eaten – and the same can be said of those who expect a job to come easily and quickly. If you are not ready for some long days, hard work, and serious emotional ups and downs you might as well get eaten. Regardless of your teaching field (even the math and science folks are facing steep competition these days), the process seems to be a long one this year. There are simply more candidates with a variety of backgrounds on the hunt.

Rule #2: IF YOU HAVE MULTIPLE TALENTS, USE THEM. In Zombieland, people need to be ready to kill the undead with whatever implement is handy at the time. This can range for a pair of hedge clippers to a piano. In the job search, you never know what will get an employer’s attention, so do not be afraid to show off your unique qualifications. I have landed interviews because of my experience with community service, my ability to coach soccer, my experience running a Dance program and – most importantly this hiring season – because I have taught English and History. As more schools are striving for a more interdisciplinary approach, I am looking good.

[WARNING! WARNING! WARNING!]: That being said, be wary. The more you do, the more schools will ask you to do and if you happen to have a life or want one outside of work, you need to be careful about the contract you sign. You do not want to land what seems like the perfect job only to realize you have sold your soul. Engaging in a school community is a variety of ways is important (and I think the best educational practice for reaching students), but in order to be your best you need some balance in your life. This may be obvious to many, but when the market gets tough, I find myself trying to please to the point that I end up being unhappy.

Rule #3: ENJOY THE LITTLE THINGS. This rule is straight out of Zombieland but, hey, they got it right. Just like you have to let off a little steam in Zombieland in order to deal with battling the undead everyday, I encourage job-seekers to make the search more fun. This is not to say that you should not take the search seriously, but rather that you should not take yourself too seriously. This is especially if you have registered with one of the big teacher search agencies and have to attend one of their job fairs.

Personally, I dislike the impersonal corporate style of many of the big search agencies. Sitting at a conference sending little colored slips of paper and emails to perspective schools while having weird somewhat stilted conversations with other candidates who happen to be your competition is not my idea of fun, even if I have multiple interviews lined up. However, it is exactly this situation where Rule #3 is most practical. While sitting at a table of experienced teachers, take time to strike up a conversation and poke a little fun at the fresh-faced newbies. After all, they are willing to do more for less and might be taking your job so you might as well get a laugh out of it. If you are new to the scene, use the job fair as a networking event. You never know you might just find you true love sitting across the table while you both wait anxiously for an interview.

Also, do not forget to get out of the building and take some time off to enjoy whatever city you are in. This will make you much happier and more engaging when you return. Remember, no one wants to work with someone who does not have a sense of humor and, while the employer cares about your credentials, they also need to know that you would be a good colleague.

So those are my thoughts and rules for what they are worth. To those of you out there looking for a job, any job, keep up the good fight! We can do this! We can survive! And with any luck, eventually we will one day look back on the whole process and smile.

So how did Sarah do? What other tips can people offer to wanna-be teachers in this market?

Does Size Matter?

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image from steve garfield @ flickr.com

When I taught at the Upper School at Metairie Park Country Day School in Louisiana in the 1990’s, I had it so good, I didn’t even know how good I had it. Anything I ever asked for, I received. If I needed a stapler, I got one. Tape dispenser? Of course. I had pencils and pens and a clock for my room. Hell, I even wrastled up a rug!

The largest class I ever taught at MPCDS had 18 students in it. Eighteen! I was able to individualize assignments for accelerated students and there was time during free periods and after school to help students who needed help. I also really got to know my students on a personal level. In fact, I am still in touch with many of them twenty years later.

The low student/teacher ratio allowed us not only to move through the material quickly, it allowed us to go deep. We had time to do creative projects: enhance the curriculum with art and music. Students had time to work on their writing and compose multiple drafts of a single essay. They worked very hard, and – with 18 students – it was obvious when they hadn’t read or prepared as discussion would simply stop. With 18 students in a classroom, by and large, everyone participated.

When I moved to New York State and started teaching at a local community college, the maximum class size for an English Composition 101 class was set at 24. Last semester, I was surprised to see 27 student names on my roster.

Now that may not seem like a big deal.

You might wonder, “What impact could an extra 3 students possibly have in the classroom climate and culture?”

Let’s just say for each student a teacher gains, that’s another paper to grade, another student who needs makeup work if he or she is absent, another e-mail to answer. If a teacher has 5 sections, adding 3 extra students per section is 15 additional students, which – in my old private school – was an actual class section! And those numbers can get overwhelming very quickly.

I find having more students makes it harder just to remember people’s names. There are more opportunities for students to “hide” in the back row and zone out. In a typical class period, not everyone speaks. I have had to change my methods to make sure that everyone is focused on my material, that they are even awake! Because my sections meet every other day, there are fewer opportunities for discussion. I don’t always have as great a grasp on who has written which paper. As students withdraw from my courses, I feel an embarrassing sense of relief. And let me be clear, this relief is not because I don’t like the students. That is not it at all. The reality is that it leaves me more space in my brain to focus on the students who remain, to help the people who get their work done and who want to be there to succeed.

In a recent article published in Education News, Sam Dillon wrote:

Over the past two years, California, Georgia, Nevada, Ohio, Utah and Wisconsin have loosened legal restrictions on class size. And Idaho and Texas are debating whether to fit more students in classrooms.

Los Angeles has increased the average size of its ninth-grade English and math classes to 34 from 20. Eleventh and 12th-grade classes in those two subjects have risen, on average, to 43 students.

“Because many states are facing serious budget gaps, we’ll see more increases this fall,” said Marguerite Roza, a University of Washington professor who has studied the recession’s impact on schools.

The increases are reversing a trend toward smaller classes that stretches back decades. Since the 1980s, teachers and many other educators have embraced research finding that smaller classes foster higher achievement.

image from photosteve @ flickr.com

Recently, Andrew Cuomo  made some drastic cuts to New York States Education Budget that has administrators quietly wringing their hands.

And for the first time in my life, I plan to attend a Budget meeting for my local school district, set for March 14, 2011. Why? It is my understanding that in my district no one attends these meetings, and I’d like to understand the process by which these cuts will be made. What exactly will be cut?

Music and art are generally considered extras. I will try to make sure that doesn’t happen. But if saving those courses means my son’s core class sizes will need to balloon to 34 students… well, that’s a tough choice.

There are about to be drastic cuts in every public school across the country, and if you care about the future of your children’s education, I implore you to make the time to attend these Board meetings about the budget. Everyone always complains after the cuts have been made. Be part of the process and try to help the Board with their decision-making. Or at least bear witness to the process.

It really is our civic duty.

Think of it like voting. You know how people always say if you don’t vote in the Presidential elections, you have absolutely no right to complain because you opted out of the process. Well, I agree. And as the band Rush so aptly sang back in the 1980’s: “If you choose not to choose, you still have made a choice.”

I am planning to go to this budget meeting to find out what we, the general public, might be able to do to prevent these cuts. I want to ask the Board how much money we might need to raise to save certain programs. Because maybe as a community, we can raise some money.

Maybe I am optimistic.

Maybe I am delusional.

Hell, I’ve been called worse.

But I do believe that I live in the kind of school district where parents are willing to help.

And I can be the girl who asks.

In the past, I’ve found chocolate and wine can get people to do almost anything.

(But seriously, anyone wanna come with? I’m a little nervous… more about getting lost on the way to the meeting than anything else.)

Do you think class size matters when it comes to education?

Contemplating Quitting The Classroom

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A black and white icon of a teacher in front o...
Image via Wikipedia

I have been thinking that this will be my last semester in the classroom. It’s been a hard year for a variety of reasons, but I have been thinking I just am not connecting with my students the way I used to. Part of it may be that I am getting older. I have somehow become an “old-fashioned teacher” who doesn’t show movies, rely on Smart Boards or Power Point presentations. In other words, I have always been able to “be my own show,” create my own bells and whistles, and that was enough. I was enough.

This year is different. I don’t like how my students seem less prepared each year. I don’t like having to repeatedly tell adults to put away their technology/toys. It’s exhausting. I haven’t lowered my expectations with regard to their assignments or how I grade them, but I have a lot of students with D’s and F’s. That doesn’t feel good to me. Part of it is the 15-week gig: It doesn’t feel long enough to get my students where they need to be. I don’t understand why some of my students come to class without full drafts of their papers when I tell them they need to come to class with completed papers. I don’t understand why they leave their books in their cars. I don’t understand why they come to English class without pens or paper, even though it is clearly stated as a basic expectation on my Course Information Sheet. I don’t understand their lateness, why they don’t recognize walking in late as a terrible act of rudeness and incivility. I don’t understand why they struggle so much with citation. Except I do: it requires meticulous attention to detail  – and, based on this last essay I collected – about 7 students out of about every 22 possess the ability to attend to detail. Here’s a newsflash: some students don’t attempt to write papers at all. They take zeros, and they seem fine with this.

Me? I’m not fine with any of this, so I’ve been feeling run-down.

There is a bit of ego in teaching, maybe more than teachers might care to admit. I can’t speak for all teachers, but I think it is fair to say we are willing to take the ridiculously low pay, work the long hours, plan our lessons, grade the papers into the wee morning hours – as long as we see progress. Positive change. Forward movement. Progression. I need to feel as though I am helping my students move from point A to point B: even better if I can take them from point A to point Z! That said, it’s been a little light on that this semester. So I’ve been thinking about jumping ship and hopping onto a different boat.

And then I received a poem from Niquette Kearney.

Niquette in 2010

I taught Niquette in New Orleans back in the mid-1990s at Metairie Park Country Day School, nearly twenty years ago. When I first met Niquette, she was in 10th grade Honors English while struggling with some big life stuff. Big. Life. Stuff. And she was floundering. Because it is hard to focus on writing papers when you are dealing with Big Life Stuff. I suggested Niquette drop out of her high-pressure Honors section (with me as her teacher) and pop into another section of Regular English, (also with me as her teacher.) Poor Niquette. There was no escaping me that year as I taught the entire 10th grade! Boy, was she pissed off! I’m pretty sure she wanted to kill me; instead, she agreed. (Really, though, what was the alternative?) And the Regular section was easier for her. She got her work done, earned stellar grades, and she was able to focus on herself.

From the beginning, I adored Niquette. Teachers aren’t supposed to have favorites, but Nikit (the nickname I began to scribble on her papers) was beautiful and smart and funny and strong. How can you not love that? She was the whole package. She just didn’t seem to realize she was the whole package. But then, honestly, in high school, who feels they are “all that”? Nikit and I spent lots of time on a beat-up old couch in the English Department. Sometimes we talked about papers, but lots of times, we didn’t. Sometimes I just listened to her talk about her life, her experiences. Sometimes she cried, but mostly she didn’t. Her voice always quavered a little, as if she lived right on the verge of tears. That year, Nikit found herself at a crossroads. Without sharing her secrets, let’s just say, because she is beautiful and smart and funny and strong, she has managed to survive this very difficult year – maybe even thrive despite the adversity.

So here I am thinking of leaving the teaching biz, and I get this piece of correspondence.

Niquette’s message read simply: “Here’s a poem I wrote recently and thought I’d share with you, as you were in my thoughts.”

In a moment bigger than I knew,
At a time which could have been many,
I glanced at myself

In the mirror of my own eyes,
As if greeting a stranger for the first time,
I introduced myself with wonder
At the amazing sight of me

After so long without looking,
I finally saw
What I thought they’d lied about
Suddenly, it covered my reflection, overcoming me
So bright, I shuddered, reaching out my hand,
Welcoming the newcomer,
The one I thought I’d seen before

It was then, that I saw myself
And what I’d never even looked for,
And I blushed when I knew
That it was there the whole time

What a rare sight,
To view myself that way,
As a stranger meets another pleasantly, then parts
This moment passed but was mine
I saw what I did, and it was precious; beautiful

It was me.

Niquette Kearney, 2010

I am pretty sure I am one of the ones who tried to convince Nikit about her strength, her smarts, her internal and external beauty. I’m pretty sure I’m one of the one’s she assumed lied to her about all her fabulousness. I’m just so happy to know that she saw it, felt it, if only for a moment. And I’m even happier to know that she sat down and recorded it – as if it had been an assignment for English class – so she can have it to hold on to. I love that, after all these years, she is still writing poetry.

And then, thanks to Nikit, I remember this is the reality for teachers, especially college educators. We do our stuff. We try to shimmer and shine and get our junk into our students’ heads in 15 short weeks – and then, if we are lucky — maybe — 10, 15, 20 years later, someone reminds us that we helped them along the way. Someone might send us a poem, or a card, or run into us in the grocery store and give us a giant hug and tell us how much we helped. Teaching is like parenting; it involves a lot of delayed gratification. Folks shuffle in; they shuffle out, sometimes without so much as a smile. Sometimes it’s really hard to wait for gratitude.

I am happy for my sweet Nikit. She is going places, that one.

Me? I’m not so sure if I’m jumping ship. Time will tell.

For now, my course is set, and I will continue to power ahead through these choppy waters, full throttle.

Pep Talk For New Teachers

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As the new school year approaches, it occurs to me that there are a lot of new teachers heading out there.  This is my twentieth year in the classroom. It hardly feels possible, but if you were to check my Facebook page, it is peopled by former students from five different schools. Most of these folks now have children of their own!  I figured I’d share some things with new teachers that I’ve learned over the years. And I hope that parents will consider these things, too – especially if you hear your child has a new teacher. Before you start wringing your hands in despair, understand that new teachers bring enthusiasm to the classroom. They are eager to work, eager to get to the business of teaching. Help them; encourage them. They have to figure things out very quickly.

August. A new class arrives. Wide-eyed, unformed, brimming with enthusiasm, the youngest ones tinged with trepidation. They find their rooms, sit in desks which have held many before them, smile brightly, secretly thrilled, eager to ponder great books, study unfathomed formulas, devour complex theories, dream noble dreams. This is the ritual of August, right?

Sort of. I mean, maybe for the first week or two. But by the end of the first month, when that ho-hum routine is kicking in, and summer feels like past tense, students may become hauntingly silent, or worse, horribly restless. This is when a new teacher may begin to panic. Because  there are papers to be graded, charts to be updated, forms to be completed and returned to somebody’s office: It’s grueling and even more difficult when you are still trying to figure out whose office is where and which key opens what door.

When I was a teacher at Metairie Park Country Day School in New Orleans, Louisiana, I was on a Committee that helped to create a new faculty handbook filled with enough information to get a new teacher started, but not so much as to overwhelm.

New Teachers, see if any of these things help:

photo by Eric James Sarmiento @ flickr.com

1. Don’t take things too personally. You have to know this up front. Your students are going to talk about. If you are lucky, they will say nice things like, “I like Mr. X’s hair,” or “Ms. Q. is kinda cool.” More likely, you will overhear them in the halls: “(Insert your name here) is unfair. Not flexible. Boring. Biased. Unqualified.” Let’s face it. Not every student is going to die for your class. Not every student is going to find the Quadratic equation fascinating. Not every student is going to care about conjugating verbs. They won’t all be interested in Mendelian genetics. Some of them won’t like your unit on Lord of the Flies, or insects, or rain forests. Listen to their comments, glean from them what you will, and then let them go. This is especially true for teachers of older students when you receive your first batch of student evaluations.

2. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Usually teachers are the nicest bunch of folks you can ever meet. (Except when there are budget cuts. When there are budget cuts, hide your construction paper and bolt down your stapler.) But generally speaking, if you need support, a new teacher can ask just about any other faculty member to explain how to un-jam the copier or for directions to the nearest bathroom. No matter what your problems might be, if you are in need, there is someone who can help you. Teachers like to be helpful.

3. Don’t forget to forgive yourself. One of the greatest advantages to teaching is the forgiving nature of children. That same characteristic which makes your students forget the complex theory which you masterfully presented to them just yesterday allows them to completely forget your prior day’s blunder. Even older students will be tolerant of your errors if you are honest about them and don’t try to pretend they didn’t happen. You should apply this same forgiveness to yourself. Some of your lessons are going to suck. But some will be brilliant.

photo by Nick J. Webb @ flickr.com

4. Don’t forget to take care of yourself. This is not in any  handbooks I’ve ever read on teaching, but it’s actually really important. If your new teaching experience is anything like mine was, in addition to your teaching responsibilities, you’ve probably already taken on extracurricular responsibilities. Whether you’ re working on a yearbook, organizing a dance or proctoring for SATs, helping to make costumes for the play or coaching a sport, no doubt you’ve got your new teacher hands full. And just as you are getting a grip, someone pops his head in and offers you another great “opportunity for growth.” Don’t be afraid to say no. It isn’t always easy, but you don’t have to take on additional responsibilities you don’t feel ready to handle. Because if you take on too many activities, you’ll get sick. This is because new teachers spend late nights planning, and grading, trying to stay one day ahead of their students. So while it sounds obvious, don’t forget to get enough sleep, eat right, and take lots of vitamins.

5. Don’t forget to laugh. If necessary, look for something funny! Just watching a group of kids at work or coming down the hallway is usually sufficient. There’s usually someone picking his nose, someone with an unzipped fly, someone with pants down around the knees, some girl wearing waaaay too much make-up — (and I’m pretty sure this applies from kindergarten all the way up to college level, folks!) And don’t take yourself so seriously that you can’t appreciate the hilarity of the moment when you learn that you have chalk on your butt. It’s funny!

6. Don’t feel like you have to have all the answers. The most seasoned teachers will tell you that even fifteen or twenty years from now, you still won’t know everything – especially these days with the technology changing so quickly, the kids will, no doubt, be teaching you many things. Let them. If you don’t know something, don’t make something up. Tell the student you don’t know the answer to the question. Write. It. Down. Do some research, and get back to the student with the answer. That student will know that you care.

In May, when you feel more relaxed, more comfortable, more competent, you will walk from one end of the campus/quad/building to the other and each time experience something different — a burst of magnolias on the east side of the auditorium; on the terrace, a gathering of students, intense in their chatter; the sturdy dark wood of the dining room, inviting and scented with red sauce; in the middle school wing, you might see mouths devouring a snack. If it is a Thursday, maybe they might be eating donuts (*she said nostalgically*); outside, during recess, the littlest ones will swing and climb, jump and shout; and everywhere fluffy squirrels will scratch up the nearest trees. You will smile at a colleague while passing her and return a wave to a student who enjoys your class. You will remind someone to throw his plastic something-or-other in the garbage can. You will begin making plans for next year’s classes. You will feel calm. You will feel you belong. You will have survived your first year, the gauntlet.

I promise you, the following year will be a lot easier!

Seasoned teachers, how did I do? What did I forget?

Ode to Mark Kelly: The Man Who Helped Me Accept Chaos

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It was my third week at Metairie Park Country Day School and I could barely distinguish the administration building from the science building. I didn’t know where the nearest bathroom was, who to call about the broken desk in my classroom, or how to make the copier stop jamming.

For the first two weeks I called him Jeff. By the time I got it straight, I realized that Mark Kelly was not the technology guy; neither was he the Athletic Director. He was the Middle School Principal, and he’d come to the English office to pay me a visit, to see how I was doing, if I needed anything. How nice, I thought, how friendly the folks are around these parts. Little did I know that he was out to get me. Little did I know that I’d come face to face with the meanest practical joker east of the Mississippi. I made the mistake of sounding secure.

Mark Kelly

“Everything is great,” I said, trying to sound confident.

“Have you been to the Lower School?” he asked.

“Been there.” I said, feigning a yawn.

“What about the library?”

“Pu-leeze,” I lied.

“So you know what you’re doing?” he said, raising his eyebrow. “You have it all together?”

I nodded my head, snapped my fingers two times for effect, and headed off to class.  Later, after school ended and I had erased the blackboard, reorganized the desks in a circle, and collected my mail, I returned to the English office. I saw it from all the way across the room; my desk had been cleared. Everything was gone.

When I realized the gravity of the situation, I gasped aloud: “My grade book!” It held all my students’ grades, all my attendance records.  I think I vomited a little in my mouth.

Sitting behind me, looking calm, was Mr. Kelly.  He smiled, arms crossed over his chest.  “So, you’ve really got it all together…”

“Where is it?  What have you done with it?!” I squeaked.

“It’s around,” he said coolly.

Suffice it to say that Mr. Kelly sent me on quite a scavenger hunt. During my journey, I located the Lower School atrium, the Upper School attendance office, the library – and I met fabulous folks all along the way. In the end, it turned out that Mr. Kelly had stashed all my goods in an empty file cabinet drawer right there in the English office, about two steps away from my desk. I pulled all my belongings out of the drawer, unharmed, and set about reorganizing. Mr. Kelly gurgled and chortled behind me.

Truth be told, I miss the way Mark Kelly batted me around the way some giant cat might play with a mouse or a bird. I miss hearing his booming laugh behind me at school plays; I miss his multi-colored Tabasco ties; I miss his wit, his charm, his teasing, and his teaching. Mark put a little bounce in my step. He taught me to stay on my toes.  He taught me never to brag about being done with something early. He taught me how order in the world is artificial and how easy it is to lose control. He made me explore, go out and meet people, go into unfamiliar territory, and find answers. It is so easy to get stuck in our own little comfort zones.

Mark has been working as Head of School at Annunciation Orthodox School in Houston, Texas for the last 14 years. I like to think that this little Grasshopper has become like her master and that I instill in my students the same thrill for exploration and the same joy at being slightly off- center.

When is the last time someone made you feel a little off balance – in a good way?